Fire, small and mean, spits at me, its red darting flames just like my daughter’s tongue when it protrudes from her mouth to scorn me. I scowl back. Fistfuls of smoke pour over the cauldron; howling winds grab the steam and fling it out on the high prairie beyond the grove of trees encircling me. The gale lunges at the fire and pummels my lungs and wrenches the towering limbs above me. Alone, I sink into my rain gear and study the jeering coals.
Ever a mother, the tedious days often run into a joyless wash, runoff that threatens to flood my shore of strength. Panic rises. I feel ill-equipped, my mothering guesswork, credentials forged, failure destined.
I am a fraud and this terrible secret nearly public: I don’t have what it takes. Their liquid windows staring into mine, knowing, would be my death, so I fiercely hide it. Wilderness seems perfect for this. I have long been inclined to the trail, content to fend alone, because I am terrified of breaking the people I love.
A nurse loomed and placed a gas mask over my face. She spoke louder, as if the mask were earmuffs. “It will be okay,” she asserted. Sensing my terror, she distracted me, said “Anything fun planned for the Fourth?” I tried to answer but my tongue was too thick: it stuffed my mouth like cotton. I giggled, high with gas and Valium. She seemed satisfied and told me I could squeeze her hand if it hurt. I felt a startling pinch that grew hotter in my belly and tried to imagine my babies vanishing like a gray dream rather than the handheld vacuum sucking and wheezing. I squeezed her bony fingers and shattered.
I cupped another hand, finely wrinkled, unfamiliar. I stared dumbly. In the living room, the room to live together, I held her gingerly and whispered, “What are you for?” Her hair and my cheeks crusted with tears but she did not know for she was just three days old, her eyes weeks away from seeing past her nose.
“Be careful,” I warned. She did not listen but grabbed a fist of hair and leaned her toddler frame toward the candle flame. Instantly the fine strands singed and curled. Her dark daring enflamed me so that I wanted to beat it from her lest it engulf us both. Was her sin another measure of my failure?
We drew up our feet and giggled and made room for ourselves by pushing books and pillows and dolls to the floor. She asked for a story from under a pile of fleece. I told her of my first hambiscuit, said exactly like that, the ham colliding with the biscuit. I reminded her that she too had tasted a hambiscuit prepared by the very same grandmother on the very same mountain. Without warning, tears fell in a torrent because I am the only one who remembers. Would she ever know how I have ached for her?
After restless darkness, I soberly wake to an iron ceiling and tepid sunrise. The wind’s ceaseless motion agitates my spirit, and I cannot fall into the stillness I have come to find. I walk for miles in search of warmth and a scrap of peace. I am alone, but I am not sure. I am moving, but I am not awake.
Home. Hushed. Still. Encircled by arms, strands of hair, sticky grins. I look up, up the cathedral of color that towers above our yard. I feel small in a very warm way. Whenever I open my eyes the colors startle me. I drink them in over and over, blinking again and again, wondering if I will grow tired of them but I never do.
Another wild, unhindered day deep in the wilderness of mercy. Their delight in me, their liquid windows staring into mine, knowing, is a startling permission to receive the miracle of their pleasure, to abandon the wasteland of exile for the wonderful discomfort of forgiveness. It never wanes, this ember that feeds a fire my doubt had doused; and finally I come awake to the glory before me.
(I’ve titled this post Bare, revisited because I wrote about the same concept in much different language in a previous blog titled simply Bare. You can read it here.)